Dan Williams, ABU DHABI 31 Aug (Reuters) – Top aides to U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the United Arab Emirates on a historic flight from Tel Aviv on Monday to finalize a pact marking open relations between the Gulf power and Israel.
Even before discussions start in Abu Dhabi, the delegates made aviation history when the Israeli commercial airliner flew over Saudi territory on the direct flight from Tel Aviv to the UAE capital.
“That’s what peace for peace looks like,” Netanyahu tweeted, describing a deal for formal ties with an Arab state that does not entail handover of land that Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Announced on Aug. 13, the normalization deal is the first such accommodation between an Arab country and Israel in more than 20 years and was catalyzed largely by shared fears of Iran.
Palestinians were dismayed by the UAE’s move, worried that it would weaken a long-standing pan-Arab position that called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory – and acceptance of Palestinian statehood – in return for normal relations with Arab countries.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien head the U.S. delegation. The Israeli team is led by O’Brien’s counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. Officials will explore bilateral cooperation in areas such as commerce and tourism, and Israeli defense envoys are due to visit the UAE separately.
“I prayed yesterday at the (Western) Wall that Muslims and Arabs throughout the world will be watching this flight, recognizing that we are all children of God, and that the future does not have to be pre-determined by the past,” Kushner told reporters on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport. U.S. President’s senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks as Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat stands next to him upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Israeli officials hope the two-day trip will produce a date for a Washington signing ceremony, perhaps as early as September, between Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
That could give Trump a foreign policy boost ahead of his re-election bid in November.
The Trump administration has tried to coax other Sunni Arab countries concerned about Iran to engage with Israel. The most powerful of those, Saudi Arabia, while opening its airspace to the El Al flight, has signaled it is not ready.
Hours before the plane landed three people were killed and several others were injured in two separate explosions in Abu Dhabi and UAE tourism hub Dubai, police and local media said.
The Abu Dhabi government media office said two people were killed in the blast in the capital, which the National daily reported had hit KFC and Hardee’s restaurants.
In a second incident, one person was killed when a gas cylinder exploded in a Dubai restaurant, local media reported.
Like all El Al 737s, the aircraft was equipped with an anti-missile system, an Israeli spokesman said, and carried security agents of the U.S. Secret Service and the Israeli Shin Bet to guard the delegations.
On board the packed airliner, passengers were welcomed in Arabic as well as English and Hebrew, a gesture marking the historic flight.
“Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom, have a safe flight,” the pilot, Captain Tal Becker, said on the intercom, in Arabic, English and Hebrew, using all three languages to also announce the flight number and destination.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, said Kushner and his team were “scrambling to convince as many Arab and Muslim leaders as possible” to give Trump an election boost.
“They will be a prop at the backdrop of a meaningless spectacle for a ridiculous agreement that will not bring peace to the region,” she said.
Reporting by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Cooney, Toby Chopra, William Maclean